The ups and downs of servant life

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st September & the Gazette & Herald on 19th September 2018

I have started to watch ITV’s adaptation of Vanity Fair, and am particularly fascinated by the interactions between the heroine Becky Sharp and the servants who wait on the wealthy Sedley family with whom she is invited to stay. Clearly, they despise the fact that they are to wait on Becky, who is of lowly birth, and whom they see as rising above her true station. How annoying that she gets all the perks afforded to the upper classes while they get none. The footman, Sam, is particularly miffed, and recognises that Becky is on an urgent mission to bag herself a wealthy husband before she has to suffer the humiliation of becoming a mere governess.

Vanity Fair is said to be ITV’s attempt to replace the phenomenal success of its noble predecessor, Downton Abbey, although that has yet to be seen. Set in North Yorkshire (although mostly filmed elsewhere), the shenanigans that go on upstairs with the Crawley family are matched in entertainment by those that go on downstairs, with much jostling for position and displays of bitter resentment towards anyone deemed to be growing too big for their boots. The class system stretched from the very top of the aristocracy right down to the lowliest role.

For example, at the top of the servant hierarchy was the housekeeper (female) and the estate steward (male). The cook was also extremely important, and male cooks were more sought after, though less numerous, than females, with a French male cook seen as the best of the best. They held great influence and importance in the household, as what they produced when entertaining guests could make or break their employers’ reputations. If it wasn’t fashionable, of exquisite quality and visually spectacular, then the hosts could face public humiliation. At the bottom of the pile were the scullery maid and laundry maid, alongside the stable boy and grounds keepers.

In my dad’s column from 23rd September 1978, he talks of the perils servants faced if they didn’t understand certain etiquettes, which often only came to them naturally after years of experience. He found the information in an ancient little handbook that he’d forgotten he had.

The servants had to get their heads around the many, many rules. The etiquette for knocking on doors, for example, was enough to baffle anyone, never mind having to familiarise themselves with the rest of the household conventions. Servants must never knock at a sitting or dining room door, unless they are the cook, who absolutely had to knock. Servants were, however, expected to knock on bedroom doors. If an ignorant servant did knock on the wrong door, then they were displaying their lack of breeding, and if they had recently arrived from another household, then they were demonstrating that their former employer was not very noble.

Another essential skill was to be able to enter and exit a room as quietly as possible, ensuring that the latch went into the socket with very little noise. They must also always close the door, even if they were entering for just a short time, as warm air was very precious and would soon be dispersed by draughts allowed in through a door carelessly left swinging.

It may seem odd to us today, but those being waited upon rarely said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to the men and women serving them. A mere shaking of the head, or a face turned away, was enough to signify rejection of whatever was being proffered, while acceptance was assumed unless otherwise indicated.

Saying ‘thank you’ was only acceptable if some extra service was performed. For example if a diner accidentally spilled something and the servant rushed forward to help, then it was fine to thank said servant.

These are just a couple of the rules of old etiquette, but there are so many more. Can you imagine being a novice servant? The opportunities to get it wrong must have been immense, and would no doubt have left them quaking in their boots.

So now, thanks to this column, I have become acquainted with the fact that you can never be too careful when employing your servants. So when I find and marry my aristocratic nobleman, I will make sure that all our servants are given a copy of my dad’s little handbook.

Visit my blog at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.

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